When I meet someone for the first time, and he or she asks me what I do, I tell them simply that I’m retired. If they press for more information (“I mean what do you DO?”), as occasionally happens, I ponder a moment and say, “I swim.”
Yes, I also do other things, such as produce this twice-monthly blog, but my week-in, week-out occupation, no matter the season, is swimming. If I’m ambulatory I show up at about 11 a.m. at the outdoor, year-around-heated Cactus Park municipal pool in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I live, four times a week, usually Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
My routine is to swim 50 lengths of 25 meters each, doing three cycles of eight lengths by “crawl” stroke and eight by kicking and finishing with one length each way. That works out to about three quarters of a mile and takes me about 31 minutes, aided by training fins. The sessions are the anchors of my days and I schedule all other things around them. Ain’t retirement grand?
I do it because I can, and because it’s good for me. I’m convinced that the two best things one can do for oneself is to exercise regularly and not smoke. I broke that last rule for about 25 years until 1979, not counting the occasional cigar I puffed until a few years ago. My chest x-rays are clean so, apparently, I got away with the misdeeds. Not everyone is so lucky.
Do I enjoy swimming? As Bill Clinton might say, it depends what you mean by “enjoy.” I’ve loved being in the water since childhood, but I must admit that the constant up and back can be boring, and when my mind drifts I sometimes lose count of the laps. But I’ve learned that the first rule of regular exercise is never to ask yourself if you feel like it, either before or during the activity. Gloria Steinem has been quoted as saying, “I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy having written,” and although I think I heard that line before her heyday I often apply it to my swimming (and to my writing).
Swimming has not been my first exercise choice. As I kid I pretty much grew up in my school playground doing whatever was in season. In my teens and 20s I played golf and got pretty good at it, but by age 30 home and work duties precluded this expensive, frustrating and time-consuming sport and I gave it up with hardly a backward glance. I turned instead to tennis and softball when the weather was warm and racquetball when it wasn’t.
I played organized softball in the Chicago-area parks into my mid-40s and would have played longer if my teams hadn’t disbanded. I dropped racquetball when wife Susie and I moved to Arizona in 1997 and I no longer had ready partners at my skill level. Racquetball is a great game but small skill differences translate into big scoring gaps. I loved the game and still play it in my dreams (really).
I took up hiking on a dare at age 45, climbing a 14,000-foot Colorado mountain wearing Hush Puppies. It took about two weeks for my blisters and muscles to heal, but I loved the experience and tried to repeat it when I could. Living in Arizona opened vast new hiking vistas. I signed up with a land conservatory and soon was leading hikes and running its hiking program, as well as that of the local community college. Those duties soon pushed aside tennis, although I must admit that at about the same time (I was 65) I’d stopped beating players with whom I’d been competitive. No more losing helped make up for no more tennis.
You can’t hike every day so I took up occasional lap swimming to fill the gaps. I never was much for repetitive exercise but found that the water and sunshine made the pill tastier. When I turned 70 neurological problems began constricting my hiking range and after about three more years increasing foot numbness and back pain made the activity undoable. I still get around all right but about 10 minutes is my limit for standing or walking without a sit-down. That left swimming as my sole exercise option.
That’s not bad because, I think, lap swimming is the one exercise to have if you’re having only one. It affords a full-body workout with low impact in pleasant surroundings. You can find just about anything you want on the Internet and I’m happy to report that one website, healthfitnessrevolution.com, ranked swimming as the No. 1 fitness sport, one that’s “absolutely awesome for heart health, calorie burning and increasing lung capacity.” How about that?
There are other reasons to swim:
--It’s safe, with an annual injury rate of .l%, according to one on-line source. (Golf’s rate was 1%, 10 times higher.)
--It’s cheap. At the wonderful Cactus Pool I pay $72 for 30 swims, or close to two months’ worth. A couple of $25 Speedo suits every other year, and occasional new goggles and fins, and that’s it.
--You do it alone so there’s no need to accommodate other people’s schedules.
--It’s not competitive unless you make it so. A bad tennis game could ruin my day but I never swim bad.
--It provides a nice tan, which hides many of my dermatological imperfections.
I’ve tried hard to come up with swimming negatives but can think of only one—it doesn’t provide much to talk about. Sports like golf and tennis have thriving professional arms that allow participants to chatter away for hours about the attributes of their favorite players, but swimming pierces the national consciousness for only a couple of weeks every four years—during the Summer Olympics. And then there’s not much to say about the stars except that they swim really fast.
But enough about talk—we do that too much anyway. Gotta go swim!